You may choose to follow a vegan diet because it’s good for the environment, the animals or your health — or maybe all three. But you may wonder if a diet that cuts out all animal products is good for growing children as well.
According to pediatric dietitian Katie Nowacki, RD, a vegan diet can be healthy for children too, but you may need to make a few modifications.
“You want to make sure your children are getting all the vitamins and nutrients their growing bodies require,” she says.
Meeting the need for protein and vitamins
About 10% of U.S. adults follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. Typically, a vegetarian does not eat meat, poultry or fish, but does eat eggs and dairy products.
A much smaller number of adults (less than 1%) are vegans. They do not eat any animal, fish or poultry or their products. And that includes eggs, dairy and honey.
Those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets are at risk for deficiencies, including vitamin B12, iron, zinc and calcium. Eating fortified grains can help avoid these deficiencies, Ms. Nowacki says. So can vitamin supplements. Your pediatrician can advise you about vitamins and supplements, she says.
Children’s growing bodies also need plenty of protein, so you’ll want to make sure your child is getting enough.
“When a child follows a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is important to ensure adequate protein intake, as protein from plants is not absorbed as easily,” she says. “Protein is also essential to make sure your child reaches his or her full height potential.”
How to safely change your child’s diet
Before changing your child’s diet, it’s a good idea to discuss concerns and possible risks with your pediatrician or a pediatric dietitian.
Find out what symptoms to watch for that may indicate your child’s nutritional needs are not being met. For instance, mood swings or energy changes may signal a problem, Ms. Nowacki says.
In the beginning, you might want to keep a food journal for your children. Then you can review the journal with your pediatrician to make sure you’re not overlooking any dietary imbalances.
“A good rule of thumb is to keep a diet record for three days — two weekdays and one weekend day — to give the provider a good picture of typical intake,” Ms. Nowacki says.
Pay attention to your child’s emotions
As a parent, you also should watch for any emotional impact that following a vegan diet might have on your child.
“Some children may have feelings of separation when they eat differently than their peers,” she says. “Also, following a restrictive or highly specialized diet may lead to restrictive eating behaviors later in life.”
If you suspect that following a different diet is bothering your child, it’s a good idea to talk about it. Try to answer his or her questions and explain your diet’s benefits.
In addition to consulting with a pediatrician and/or pediatric dietitian, Ms. Nowacki recommends the following resources: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, U. S. Department of Agriculture, and American Academy of Pediatrics.
As a final word, she says that when you’re teaching your children to follow a vegan diet, it’s important to include a good variety of whole grains and whole fruits and vegetables.
“No matter what diet you follow, it is vital to have a balanced diet,” Ms. Nowacki says.